Navigating the Labyrinth of Privilege
I live in an India far different from the one that I was a child in. Yet, it’s not so different at all. The prejudices that have always lurked at the shadows of society are now strutting around confidently, backed by governance that took the British strategy of ‘Divide and Rule’ to heart. Noam Chomsky recently commented, “[Islamophobia is] taking its most lethal form in India, where the Modi government is systematically dismantling Indian secular democracy and turning the country into a Hindu ethnocracy, with almost 250 million Muslims becoming a persecuted minority.” (Meenakshi, 2022)
The story I want to tell you takes on new urgency in light of the rampant abuse of privilege all around me. This shadowy, ephemeral, powerful thing that is ‘privilege’ is so difficult to pin down when it floats, almost always, in the seas of intersectionality. So it is that I explore the only life that I have complete authority over – my own.
I belong to the middle class of India. In India’s demographic, this makes me financially privileged. I have a master’s degree. This certainly makes me privileged in that I am able to make informed decisions through research. I am also queer, neurodivergent and an artist in a country becoming increasingly specific about who is welcome as a citizen, and who is an outsider – definitely underprivileged in the freedom these aspects of my being can afford. Given this dance of privilege in my own life, I begin to pen down my experiences. Yet, self-doubt lingers – where do I begin?
Doubting myself has many sources. There is intergenerational trauma, an inherited gift for me to resolve as best as I can in my lifetime. Perhaps I can start there. I come from two different castes. This is a big deal in India, never said out loud, yet quietly lurking in the background. School textbooks pretend like caste doesn’t exist, and so did my parents. I grew up thinking that the fights at home were random – never understanding the cultural gaps that generations of lifestyle differences can create. I certainly never foresaw feeling threatened in an increasingly fascist Hindu nation in the third decade of my life.
The doubt also comes from my identity as a third culture kid. I grew up in various countries, and never completely identified with any of them. As a twelve-year-old, I struggled to comprehend the disgust that a white classmate flung at me for the colour of my skin. Much later, at university, I still didn’t understand the racism coming from a teacher, who, instead of offering constructive criticism on my Ph.D application to another university, told me, “if I were the one reading this essay, not only would I reject you, I would ask that you never apply again” (I actually did get accepted). Yet, sneakily, the racism entered me as doubt of my own self-worth.
Belonging to the highly educated middle-class of a fast-globalising India brought with it the doubts and confusions of privilege. Witnessing the ‘Black Lives Matter’ and ‘Me Too’ movements over social media made me question what privileges I take advantage of; how do I help redistribute the power that privilege brings?
Yes, this self-doubt is a good beginning for my story. In my experience, cruelty often begins in self-doubt, and without the shield of self-compassion, becomes a sharp blade of hatred and disgust against whoever it comes across. I didn’t really understand this when I was twelve and listening to that white boy. Now that I do, here are some stories from the past few days.
Flowers for your god, sharp words for you
I rejoice in living in a small locality on the outskirts of Bangalore, where vendors still make the rounds selling flowers, green vegetables, and miscellaneous doodads. In a small locality, people know each other by name and by habits, for better or worse. Since I recently moved to this locality, there is still a sense of wonder and adventure when walking by strangers’ homes. On morning walks, I often chat with the lady who sells flowers, as she smirks at my partner and I “randomly meandering around” in her words.
The other day, she asked me if I had sarees to give her, and I happily called her over. As a child, I had often seen people giving away old clothes when someone came asking. I remember noticing a smugness in the giver, and a sense of resigned humility in the receiver. It was not a transaction of equals, where a person with excess was simply moving their things to a place of greater use and need. Somehow, ego stuck in its ugly nose, and I hated witnessing that experience. I was determined to engage simply as a human being.
When the flower lady came home, asked for tea, it was my pleasure to offer it to her.
“Why do you need such a big house?” she asked, looking around my modest, rented apartment. For work and for life, I explained. From there on, the questions kept coming –
“Why don’t you have a picture of your family deity in your altar room?” My altar room is a mish-mash of stones, shells, feathers, a mushroom, Buddhist Tara, the Muslim Hand of Fatima, and Hindu Saraswati among other things. It is a sacred space that embodies my syncretic faith in nature and the best of humanity. The intrusion into my personal beliefs, alongside the imposition of her faith on my practice made me deeply uncomfortable.
This conversation would have been challenging for me in the best of circumstances, and here we were, speaking in Kannada – which is only a tertiary language for me. I was struggling to keep up.
“Why aren’t you giving me more sarees?” Because some of them come from my mother and grandmother and I want to honour their stories.
“I don’t have too many clothes,” I said, “I don’t like shopping.” (Not to mention wanting a downscaled minimal lifestyle, all too complicated to explain to most people in any language).
“Sure”, that smirk again, “those who can afford it don’t want it, and those who can’t, are always looking for more.”
She was happy that my body size is similar to her granddaughter’s, although she reproached me with, “you’ve become fat recently.”
I have spent so much time reading and writing about ecology, body shaming, religion, capitalism, greed, and yet in this conversation, I was mute. She kept deriding me, I kept nodding, smiling and offering tea.
It took me multiple conversations with friends, and solid introspection, to understand why – I was dehumanising her. I was disrespecting her humanity and ability to engage in intelligent conversation because I was buying into the same ideas of post-colonial capitalistic privilege that were driving her judgments. Rich means smarter, English-speaking means better, more is always desirable. These were the ideas I grew up with and have been struggling to get rid of (clearly there is a long way to go).
Yes, I am privileged to belong to the Indian middle class, to have a master’s degree and speak English fluently, to have traveled to different parts of the world as a child. At the same time, there are other parts of me that are marginalised. Brown, mixed-caste, queer, neurodivergent. During the conversation with the flower lady, I felt as though my struggles don’t matter. The flip-side of living in the grey zone of spectrums is noticing so much erasure and pain. I often mask my neurodivergence and queerness in spaces that feel unsafe. The payoff is coming home safe, but tired. It means feeling inauthentic and undeserving of love, because the pervasive social narrative doesn’t permit being attracted to different genders, or having a mind differently wired than the neurotypical. So much of my time is spent cultivating permission and self-compassion so that I am able to contain my own emotions and not let them lash out on others simply because they have no place to go.
Where the flower lady was concerned, though, I had hit a blind spot. Because she is less financially privileged than I am, I was automatically deferring to her beliefs. She was erasing and unseeing my struggles, and in absorbing her judgment, so was I. She was seeing the outward appearance, and imagining it to be the whole. By not standing up for myself, so was I.
Healing from racial trauma, still them and us
A few days later, when the incident with the flower lady was still poking at my insides, I was part of a support group and a workshop – both diverse, international environments on Zoom.
In the support group, I was shocked into silence by the amount of space that white men chose to appropriate, never considering that stuttering silence might mean that marginalised folks were gathering courage to speak up in a mixed-race room. At the end of the session, a gender non-binary participant mentioned that they had so much to say and had been waiting their turn, but it was too late by then. These gaps are blatantly visible to the coloured eye. Did the white men see them too?
In the workshop, the white facilitator mentioned paying ‘taxes’ as reparation for centuries of racism and land theft. I am delighted that she embodies the sentiment to repair racial trauma, but you cannot dismantle the master’s house with the master’s tools, as Audre Lorde put so beautifully (Lorde, 1984).
During the session, a discussion about defining resilience came up. Multiple people spoke of their interpretations, and yet, I felt like the facilitator singled out my definition of ‘resilience as determination’ as an example to come down on the racialized-capitalistic perspective on resilience as grit and endurance. There was no space to discuss how a child of the colonies might have inherited such a definition from generations lived under colonial overlords – not in a workshop about trauma, not in a space with a majority of white participants. Not even in a session where, once again, it was the white man who took up the most space, simply uncomfortable to wait in silence for quieter voices to emerge.
These moments took place early in the workshop, and I was so triggered that I could not find enough space to name my discomfort. From that point on, I kept noticing that the facilitator seemed to be working through some agitation of her own, and I was activated. Thankfully, the workshop taught tools for handling trauma, and I was able to observe my feelings while also staying present to the session.
In observing my discomfort, I was able to realise that I have a personal arsenal of ways to self-soothe; that I was not sitting in a scholastic environment where the teacher knows all (as is taught in most of the Indian schooling system; again, inherited from our colonial overlords, the British, alongside the exalted Guru system of India’s “golden past”). In finding compassion for myself, I was able, finally, to find compassion for my facilitator as well.
This time as well, it took me a few conversations and deep introspection to understand why I was so activated in the session. My intergenerational wounds around racism were surfacing, and I was not able to see clearly through the red tint of my trauma. The white facilitator had mentioned that she was working through a difficult past, that she continues to grapple with her own traumas. Yet, somewhere inside me lurked the resentment of being underprivileged – as a white person living in a first world nation, she was supposed to have it together, it said.
While I feel that there needs to be more acknowledgement of historical oppressions and the trauma thereafter in spaces of mixed identities, I also appreciate that it gets complicated. As human beings, we grasp the sense of feeling unsafe intuitively in groups, and such conversations need to necessarily take place in safe spaces. It is a slow process. I know, for example, that in the workshop, I was seething with trauma-induced resentment underneath my calm exterior.
How different was this resentment from the behaviour of the flower lady? Was she unseeing my reality from her own trauma? Had she been triggered by some past experience or traumatic memory when she entered my home? I realized that I can never know what anyone else has been through.
The whole conversation played out in a new light for me. Was she really picking on me, or was I perceiving a racialised threat from my own past? Who am I to judge healing and reparations of any sort? We do live in a money-oriented world and financial reparations may mean a lot to the community she engages with. Whether or not it does, it is not for me to judge at all.
Shame and guilt coursed through me in the new light of understanding. It is true that I did not demean the facilitator like the flower lady demeaned me outwardly, but my thoughts had been judgmental and reductive. Lover of spectrums that I am, it was easy for me to see how, unchecked, thoughts can turn into speech, and speech can turn into action. I could see clearly that there is so much power I have access to that I am still unskilled to wield. There is so much power others are dismantling and redistributing, that I have been unable to appreciate due to my own old wounds. The journey is long and convoluted.
Where do we go from here?
Having said that, I refuse to be defeated by the guilt and shame. Call me an optimist, but I do feel that painful experiences can be conduits for incredible growth and community via difficult conversations. I am bleeding on this page, showing up naked in the hope that my baring and sharing of personal experience can invite more explorations on the squiggly entanglements of privilege.
In the last week, I faced a difficult conversation while sharing social media posts about Islamophobia. It felt as though the other person was asking why I, as a Hindu person (an assumption based on my name’s Sanskritic root), would want to oppose the ban on Hijab in educational institutes. She never said it directly, but the anger and hatred towards ‘them’, the Muslims, was palpable.
It is my sincere wish that she finds her way to her own mirror and realizes that the labyrinth of privilege is never simple. She may be unwilling to give up her own Hindu privilege in the scenario of the Hijab row (Abdulla, 2022), but privilege is a delicate and tenuous thread that can be twisted in a second. I know this from constantly engaging and speaking of my own currents of privilege and underprivilege.
After all, who can I speak for, but myself? And speak I must, for we are in a time of great uncertainty; and uncertainty means opportunity, to create new paths towards flourishing. It is my contention that we have to go through the mirror, acknowledging our own thoughts, speech and action, in order to find the clarity and transparency of compassionate, courageous community.
No mob or institution can stand in the way of clear-thinking community that is committed to transformation towards a kinder and more inclusive world.
- Abdulla, N., 2022. Karnataka’s hijab row: A fragile regime’s latest assault on the right to choice. The News Minute. Accessed 15 February 2022.
- Lorde, A., 1984. Sister outsider: Essays and Speeches. Berkeley: Crossing Press, pp.110-114.
- Meenakshi, A., 2022. Islamophobia taking most lethal form in India: Noam Chomsky, Harsh Mander. The Siasat Daily. Accessed 13 February 2022.
Arpita resides in the spectrums between binaries. Her writing, painting, and music all enshrine hope for a world that embraces diversity and inclusivity as natural. Her writing weaves through her inspirations – nature, body, mind, philosophy, science, mysticism, art and politics. Arpita’s writing is rooted in personal narrative to reflect the only expertise she can ever authoritatively claim – herself.